An award-winning corporate lawyer who misled his client into thinking a matter was progressing has been allowed to stay in practice. Peter Naylor, 35, tried to ‘buy himself time’ by sending up to five misleading emails while an associate at national firm TLT, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard.
The solicitor, described as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and named as South West Young Dealmaker of the Year in 2014, told the tribunal he felt ‘broken’ by working every weekend to cope with his caseload. He had been described by relative as a ‘zombie’ due to pressures building up over several months.
From July 2013 to February 2014, Naylor’s work was more stressful and contentious than usual, with a series of transactions that required completion in short timescales and were particularly aggressively negotiated. By the end of this period Naylor was left ‘physically and emotionally drained’.
He secured an in-house secondment in early 2014 after a meeting with his superiors at which one was reported to have admitted they treated Naylor ‘like an abusive husband, always asking for forgiveness and saying it would be different’. The solicitor said he was willing to accept living away from home or commuting long distances to his seconded workplace as his only criterion was to ‘escape’ from his firm.
The tribunal heard that Naylor took two matters with him to his secondment, including one file which required applications to the Financial Conduct Authority to facilitate the restructuring of three companies. In emails to the client, Naylor said he was ‘chasing’ the matter up and later stated he had checked with a colleague that the matter was progressing. The solicitor subsequently admitted there was no colleague and he wanted the client to think things were moving forward.
After a series of assurances, Naylor failed to respond to two chasing emails in August 2014 and the matter was transferred to another fee earner.
The tribunal found dishonesty proved, concluding that while most people would be sympathetic, they would not expect a solicitor to provide his client with information he knew to be untrue.
But the tribunal considered Naylor’s health to be an exceptional circumstance which could justify not striking him off.
The judgment added: ‘The tribunal was sure that the misconduct arose at a time when [he] was affected by mental ill health that affected his ability to conduct himself to the standards of the reasonable solicitor.’
Naylor, who now practises as an in-house lawyer at his seconded workplace, was handed a suspended two-year ban and must provide half-yearly reports to the SRA as to his health and fitness to practise. He will pay costs of £9,770.
The decision is the second time in recent weeks the tribunal has opted not to strike off a solicitor found to be dishonest. In January, Sovani James was handed a suspended ban after backdating letters because she feared admitting to her mistakes.
A spokesperson for TLT said:
'We work hard at TLT to create an open and supportive work environment that enables all our people to succeed in their chosen career, recognising the pressures common across legal private practice. A core part of this is supporting both mental and physical health and we have a number of policies and initiatives in place to do this including flexible working, private medical insurance and a comprehensive employee assistance programme that provides confidential access to professional medical and mental health support.
'In this specific case, we have managed the matter to ensure no negative impact for the client involved and have supported Peter from the moment we became aware of the issue and have continued to do so throughout the tribunal process.'